Rt. Hon Sir Edward Leigh MP's speech to Westminster Hall on Tuesday, 5th Febraury 2019 regarding the closure of RAF Scampton and the location of the Red Arrows
There are strong historical, social, economic and human factors at play in the closure of RAF Scampton. It is more than 100 years old; it was founded in 1916 as Home Defence Flight Station Brattleby, and renamed to Scampton a year later. With the expansion of the Royal Air Force throughout the 1930s, the base at Scampton played its part in developing the skills and training that was to prove vital just years later. After the outbreak of war, it became one of the central air stations for Bomber Command and is most well-known for the Dambuster squadron, led by Guy Gibson, which inflicted a serious blow against the Nazis with the famous raid. Gibson was awarded the Victoria Cross, RAF Scampton’s third, and his insensitively named dog is still buried at the base today.
Across the second world war, RAF Scampton saw a loss of 551 aircrew and 266 aircraft. The bomber legacy was continued after the war, housing Canberras and Vulcans in the 1950s. It was then that the runway was extended, forcing the old Roman road of Ermine Street, the A15, to curve in compensation. That was recognised on the station’s official badge, with the curved longbow representing the new layout of the old Roman road from London to York, and the arrow had the same north-easterly orientation as the runway. The Central Flying School came to Scampton in the 1980s, as did the ever popular Red Arrows, in 1983.
It is not just historical considerations but practicalities that matter. In the 1990s, RAF Scampton was mothballed and the Red Arrows were moved to RAF Cranwell. What looked a good decision on paper proved a very bad one in practice. Cranwell proved far too crowded a base for the Red Arrows, which had to share it with the RAF College, a flying school, several training squadrons and a naval air squadron. One air enthusiast wrote to me to point out one incident that proved what a bad idea it was to base the Red Arrows at Cranwell. One day a flight faced a landing gear malfunction and had to land with its wheels up, or pancake as the flyers call it. The fuselage of the Hawk aircraft hurtled across the apron of the runway at great speed, passed through a car park and ended up wedged against the control tower and the duty operations Land Rover, damaging a number of cars en route. Clearly, it was not just the uncrowded skies of Scampton that had proved so useful. That is a very important point in terms of avionics and the Red Arrows—uncrowded skies.
In early 2000, the RAF realised the foolishness of the move and re-opened Scampton to house the Red Arrows again. The proposal now makes the same mistake twice. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. I was the MP when they mothballed Scampton the first time and our arguments were not listened to then. Lessons need to be learned from the recent past.
In all our dealings with defence, we must learn that we need the flexibility to deal with changing situations and unexpected threats. That applies as much to keeping HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, with their amphibious assault capabilities, which I am glad the Government have committed to continuing, as it does to keeping RAF Scamptonopen. The situation we are in today may change rapidly and we need the ability to respond to that effectively. So, too, may the threats we face. Relations between the UK and Russia, while far from war-like, are not quite friendly either. Russian aircraft test our air defences frequently, as NATO aircraft likewise test Russia’s. Scampton is not, of course, a frontline fighter base at the moment. It is not unimaginable that we would need to deal with a scenario in which things heat up over the North sea. As one of my constituents pointed out, if somehow RAF Coningsby was taken out of action, RAF Scampton could be very quickly converted into a frontline role with quick reaction alert capability. If the base is permanently shut and redeveloped, that option, and the flexibility it provides, is off the table. Obviously, if we lose a runway, it is lost.
There are strong economic worries, given the hit that the local secondary economy will take. We need to consider the needs of local enterprise and businesses that are involved directly or indirectly with RAF Scampton.
Let me mention Hawker Hunter Aviation. Its land and buildings are privately owned, but it fulfils contracts for the Ministry of Defence and its suppliers. Its business depends on the continuing existence of the airstrip at Scampton, which is far from guaranteed. If the base is redeveloped, we will also need to know what ground has been contaminated by defence use and what the cost of clean-up will be—a very important point. There are many stories to the effect that when the MOD re-routed the A15 to curve around the extended runway, it gave a guarantee that if the base was shut it would restore the original route of that ancient Roman road. Will the Minister comment on that point?
Talking of the Minister, I thank him personally for the gracious way in which he has tried to keep me informed at all times, including coming to my office two months before the decision was announced in public, with several of his officials, to explain what he was doing. I objected then to the closure, as he knows, and I keep objecting, but at least he has been very gracious in trying to keep us all informed. As we all know, he is a quite excellent Minister.
Of course, it is all very well for Ministers and civil servants to find savings—I encourage it—but I fear that they have made a decision to close RAF Scampton without being in full knowledge of the facts, and the changing facts.
The decision, although signed off by Ministers, is really taken by air marshals, avionics experts and all the rest of it. Scampton is unique in having this very high, wide, clean airspace. This is not just about RAF Scampton. It is about what is good for the Red Arrows and what is good for Lincolnshire. We want to keep them in Lincolnshire, not have them moved to Yorkshire, for very good reasons. This is not about sentiment. There are very good reasons to do with the clear blue skies in Lincolnshire.
It may be less expensive to keep Scampton open for defence purposes than to bear a huge clean-up cost to make it marketable to private sector development. There are four hangars at Scampton in various states of disrepair; the Minister may want to comment on that. At least one is in a relatively bad state of repair. Of course, the one that has the Red Arrows is in a superb state of repair—you could eat your breakfast off it. The others, particularly the one behind Guy Gibson’s office, is not so good. The MOD cannot do what it has done in the past—just clear out and leave these huge hangars there, with a massive clear-up bill. It must make sure before it leaves the site that the hangars are fully repaired. It cannot walk out once again and neglect its responsibilities.
I know that West Lindsey District Council and Lincolnshire County Council are already making preparations with the Ministry of Defence to ensure that any transition is done sensitively and takes on board the needs of the community. Unfortunately, we have seen the Ministry dispose of such sites very badly in the past—particularly at Hemswell and Binbrook in my constituency—and lessons need to be learnt.
Ex-MOD communities in West Lindsey have witnessed a variety of problems. They are often geographically remote or separate from other communities. Housing stock is disposed of in various ways, lessening the chances of developing cohesive, resilient communities who can establish links with other communities. Large structures that are poorly suited for conversion to civilian use are left to fall to pieces, making them more expensive to refurbish or demolish. The closure of MOD assets such as shops and social clubs has a profound effect, leaving communities with few amenities and dependent on travel by car or insufficient bus services. Roads have been poorly maintained, sometimes to the extent that they are deemed unfit for use. Heavy fencing and barriers, which are useless once the MOD assets that they protected are gone, are often left unmoved. Access to utilities such as gas mains has been an issue—not to mention broadband connectivity.
I echo the concerns of West Lindsey District Council and agree that if closure goes ahead, which we oppose, a robust and adequately funded exit strategy will be needed if the MOD is going to do the job properly. Ministers will have to tell us whether the full financial impact has been costed. There is also the superb RAF Scampton Heritage Centre, which provides free admission to the general public. One needs to pre-book in order to visit it, which is understandable because it is on a functioning military base. Can the MOD guarantee that the Heritage Centre will be allowed to continue? West Lindsey District Council and Lincolnshire County Council do not have the funding to take it up.
Can the Minister guarantee that the history of this important site will not be simply destroyed or neglected? The history of Bomber Command is no less important than our maritime history, which is so well funded in, say, Portsmouth. This is not a matter of just handing over control and saying, “Here—it’s your problem now.” We are lucky to have a wonderful group called Aviation Heritage Lincolnshire, which is a partnership between the county council, the military, the commercial sector and volunteer heritage centres and museums, spread across 19 sites. The groups and entities that combine as members of Aviation Heritage Lincolnshire do an amazing job of preserving this important aspect of our county’s history—bomber county—and provide incredible value for money. Ministers should tell us how they can better facilitate the work of these groups, especially the Heritage Centre at Scampton. If the MOD is serious about ensuring a proper, sympathetic and ethical transition for RAF Scampton, this should include a funding formula for preserving the history of the base.
We have to think about the future. A young constituent wrote to me to say that growing up and seeing the Red Arrows at Scampton was
“one of the main reasons that I am now studying aerospace engineering at university.”
If the RAF leaves, she suggests that we consider turning Scampton into a large-scale aviation attraction. She writes:
“It is vital that young people are encouraged into Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) careers, and a STEM zone should be incorporated into the museum to help inspire the next generation of pilots and engineers.”
She suggests that the recent announcement that Retford Gamston Airport in nearby Nottinghamshire is to close means that there will be strong demand for an airfield devoted to general aviation. Scampton’s runway is nearly 9,000 feet long and gives a fantastic strategic advantage to air shows and heritage aviation, as we have seen in recent years. By comparison, the Imperial War Museum in Duxford has a runway of only 5,000 feet.
More broadly, we need to know how many jobs will be lost. How many roles will be transferred elsewhere, and what will be the impact on the local secondary economy? The Ministry of Defence does not exist in a bubble; in Lincolnshire, we fund it with taxpayers’ money. If its savings will mean losses to the wider community, the MOD needs to outline realistic plans to compensate for those losses and soften the impact of shutting down Scampton. If the base is to shut, the MOD needs to consult all key stakeholders who know Scampton well and have creative ideas that unleash the full potential of the site.
West Lindsey is under constant pressure from the Government to build more houses. Given the size of our schools, the location of our medical practices and the state of our local road network, that is easier said than done. There is great resistance to any more large-scale housing in the villages north of Lincoln, including places such as Cherry Willingham, Nettleham, Saxby and Welton. Should the base close, which we oppose, there will be an opportunity for relocating projected or desired housing numbers from existing villages to a large, new village in Scampton. In order for that to work, proper facilities will have to be created and the surrounding roads upgraded. The MOD must play its part and pledge—today or soon—to do that.
In addition to the historic, economic and social impact, there is a human consideration. Many people in the Royal Air Force community have made Scampton their home over the past century, and many ex-service personnel continue to live all across Lincolnshire. RAF Scampton is not just a facility; it has been a home and community where people have formed bonds and where memories persist. Lives have been lived at Scampton, and many lives have been lost in serving the nation. I would particularly like to remember Corporal Jonathan Bayliss, whose step-brother contacted me in advance of this debate. Corporal Bayliss was the engineer with the Red Arrows who died tragically last year in an accident. He is memorialised at Scampton just outside the offices of the Red Arrows, alongside the two pilots who died in 2011. The bar has been renamed JB’s Bar in Coporal Bayliss’ memory.
Last year, second world war veteran John “Snogger” Watkins volunteered to grab a rifle and stand guard at RAF Scampton in order to keep the base open. He is 94 years old and was seconded to the Dambusters squadron in 1943, just in time for its famous raid. There is so much to celebrate at RAF Scampton—the services that have been rendered and the sacrifices that have been there. There is a strong case for keeping this base open and in operation. The last review was done only a few years ago and concluded that it was well worth completely resurfacing the runway. It also concluded that Scampton was the best place to keep the Red Arrows. What has changed?
To the bureaucrats, shutting Scampton looks great on paper. Perhaps closure would be an acceptable argument if this was only about reducing costs and saving money, but there is so much more involved. In terms of serving the local community in Scampton and Lincolnshire and maintaining our flexibility in the defence of our realm, the best option is to keep the base open.